Hurstville cancer survivor raises money to buy masks for rural firefighters

Breathing easy: Ophelia Haragli presents a mask to RFS volunteer John this week. Picture: Supplied.
Breathing easy: Ophelia Haragli presents a mask to RFS volunteer John this week. Picture: Supplied.

A Hurstville cancer survivor and advocate has provided more than 1700 much-needed masks with respirators to volunteer firefighters battling Australia's unprecedented bushfires.

Ophelia Haragli has previously battled an extremely rare and aggressive form of breast cancer and documents her health struggles on the Facebook page created by her brother, My Sisters Keeper.

The self-described advocate for cancer patients was horrified to learn the majority of rural firefighters do not have access to masks that could protect them from long-term lung damage, including cancer.

Ms Haragli said she felt powerless as she watched news of the fires unfold on TV and became concerned when seeing and reading reports of firefighters inhaling large amounts of smoke, toxins and chemicals.

She decided to research masks and contacted 50 companies before finding a supplier who could provide good-quality masks for $112 each. She then set about fundraising to buy the masks and donate them to rural firefighters.

Welcome relief: Firefighters donning the donated masks. Picture: Facebook

Welcome relief: Firefighters donning the donated masks. Picture: Facebook

"I can't fight fires. I can't rebuild homes," she wrote on her Facebook page.

"Every day I talk about cancer, about saving lives.

"It seemed the most logical thing to do [was] to roll out masks to protect our volunteers from the short and long-term implications of breathing in that [stuff]."

Since then, her posts have received widespread interest and donations have poured in.

"People have been overwhelmingly generous and the support for our volunteer firefighters is just really moving," she said.

Ms Haragli travelled to Picton before Christmas to donate masks to 12 rural firefighters. Since then she has donated more than 1700 masks to firefighters in Sydney, Canberra and Queensland and hopes to reach 2200 in coming days.

She estimates she has raised in excess of $220,000 since she started her crusade in December. She thanked Allens Industrial Products for supplying the masks at a discount and distributor The SEA Group for their support.

She has personally travelled to all NSW locations including the Central Coast and Southern Highlands to deliver masks and has been heartened by the many photographs that firefighters have posted on her Facebook page of themselves wearing the donated masks.

"My proudest moment was when one of the brigades I'd been liaising with sent me pics of them wearing the masks I sourced and crowd-funded for," she said.

Ms Haragli said it was important for the public to remember that rural firefighters were volunteers who were risking their lives and their health every time they went out to fight a fire.

"No one owes us that they risk their lives and health for us," she said.

"We can't ensure their safe return home but we can ensure that when they get through this they don't have to fight another battle for health and clean lungs and cancer and coronary disease in the future."

My proudest moment was when one of the brigades I'd been liaising with sent me pics of them wearing the masks I sourced and crowd funded for.

Ophelia Haragli

Ms Haragli would ideally like to buy masks for all 55,000 volunteer firefighters across the country, and said every person in Australia could do their bit to help.

"We can't fight fires. We can, however, show those who are that we value their dedication and at bare minimal, assist them to be able to breathe," she said.

"My dream is to roll out masks to every single volunteer firefighter until the rules change and the RFS issues them."

Donations can be made via direct deposit. She said she was not using a traditional crowd-funding platform as she wanted to avoid fees and delays accessing the money.

She posts daily updates on her Facebook account, which can be viewed here. She clears the account each day to order more masks.

Donations: Ophelia Haragli, BSB: 082231, account number: 436029234, description: MSK firefighters.